AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — As hundreds of Texas Muslims gathered at the Capitol Tuesday to meet with legislators, they were greeted by more than 1,000 supporters, who locked arms to form a welcoming human chain of protection that stretched far across the Capitol lawn.
The support was a welcome sight to those who’d attended the last Texas Muslim Capitol Day, two years ago, where they were met with dozens of protesters who repeatedly interrupted the event, chanting for Muslims to “go home.”
Supporters Tuesday included members of several Christian churches, other faith groups, and a diverse array of advocacy groups.
“I think we understand at this point that freedom is impossible unless we’re all free,” said Ash Hall, government relations director for Equality Texas, which lobbies for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. “We’d rather be united with communities that are facing oppression. … We need to try to take care of each other.”
Dozens of legislators, all democrats, several city council members and Austin Mayor Steve Adler echoed Hall as they assured Muslims that they are welcome, valued, and will be defended against any discriminatory executive orders or state legislation.
“I stand here today to say to my Muslim brothers and sisters: This is your country, this is your state. Texas needs you and you belong here,” said state Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin. “Whether you are new to this country or you have been here for generations, we appreciate your contributions to our culture and our economy, and we value your presence here today.”
Texas governors and attorneys general have been vociferous opponents of former President Barack Obama’s policies on refugees and immigration, filing numerous lawsuits challenging virtually every aspect of those policies, and others.
Texas Muslims recently have had plenty of reasons not to feel welcome in their state.
Two Texas mosques have been burned down in the past month, and anti-Muslim hate crimes have increased by 33 percent in Austin in the past two years, according to a December article in The University of Texas student newspaper, The Daily Texan.
At least one state lawmaker in the new legislative session has been criticized for painting American Muslims with a broad and offensive brush.
State Rep. Kyle Biedermann, R-Fredericksburg, hosted a community forum on Jan. 26, which he called “Defending Against Radical Islamic Terrorism in Texas.” Before the meeting, Biedermann sent more than 400 questionnaires to Muslim leaders and student associations, asking them three questions, all about Islamic extremism.
Only one recipient returned the questionnaire; many of them found it inflammatory and offensive, The New York Times reported on the day of the forum. The questionnaires were sent in envelopes marked: URGENT REPLY ASAP.
On Tuesday, the executive director of the Houston chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said that many people who are afraid of Muslims “have never met a Muslim.”
“We can’t change what they feel,” said Mustafa Carroll, one of the organizers of the event. “But they need to be educated and quit this propaganda, because it’s destroying this country.”
Carroll said he is frustrated that elected officials and citizens are “ramping up” fear of Muslims, while the state has so many other problems.
“I can’t believe that they’re wasting time with that when Texas is at the bottom of the heap in education, where people are suffering from a lack of healthcare and insurance,” Carroll said.
Security was heightened at the Capitol on Tuesday. Only a handful of anti-Muslim protesters showed up at the peaceful event.
Jonathan and Fathia Alomoush, Muslim immigrants from Jordan who have lived in Texas for years, said they were pleased to see several of their non-Muslims neighbors and colleagues at the Capitol. They befriended a Jewish woman who held a sign displaying a Star of David and the statement: “My family was put on a registry. Never Again.”
“People think I’m crazy, but I truly believe Trump is a good thing for us,” Jonathan Alomoush said. “It tests our humanity, it tests our commitment, it tests our Constitution, it tests our will power and asks us how do we unite? How do we take care of each other?”